A series of sex scandals involving underage girls has prompted widespread public anger and calls for a review of Chinese laws, lawyers said on Friday.
Earlier this month, official media reported that six primary schoolgirls aged around 10 and 11 were taken by a headmaster and a government official to hotels in Hainan island's Wanning city and sexually assaulted.
The news was followed by reports from nearby Zhanjiang city that a primary school principal surnamed Zheng had lured two sixth-grade primary school students to a dormitory on the pretext of "revision coaching" and raped them repeated since the beginning of May.
Similar cases have been reported in recent years in Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Fujian provinces, sparking widespread anger and allegations from netizens that underage sex has fast become a "perk" expected by Chinese officials.
'A lot of officials do this'
Guangzhou-based lawyer Sui Muqing said some Chinese officials held a superstitious belief that sex with a virgin could boost their chances of promotion.
"There is a superstitious pun based on the similarity between the words for virgin and 'initial level' official which means that an evil custom has become customary among many ignorant officials," Sui said.
"This states that if you want to be sure that a girl is a virgin, you have to get a girl who is still in primary school."
"Taking a girl's virginity is supposed to boost chances of a promotion," he added. "I think a lot of officials do this as a pastime."
He said a general lack of education rendered underage girls in China vulnerable to being used in such a way.
Loss of a moral benchmark
Meanwhile, Guangzhou lawyer Wang Hongjie blamed a decline in social morals, particularly among teachers.
"The responsibility has got to be with the teacher, and the reason for this decline in professional ethics has to do with the loss of a moral benchmark [throughout society]," Wang said.
"Also, there isn't enough of a curb placed by the law, either," he added.
Before 1997, sex with a person under 14 was deemed to be rape, regardless of whether or not consent was given, as children of that age were deemed incapable of giving consent.
But the introduction of the Sex Crimes Against Girls Law in 1997 led to the separate treatment of sexual contact with a minor from the existing rape law.
Defendants can plead ignorance of a child's age, and crimes under the law carry a maximum penalty of 15 years, compared with a maximum penalty of death under pre-existing rape legislation.
Netizens reacted angrily to the latest reported scandals.
"So, what, has [child rape] become a perk available to the rich and powerful now?" wrote a microblog user @shanjiuzhai, while user @nichengrumuchunfeng added: "Actually this is a case of unchecked power, where the law is only there for decoration."
"If the root cause isn't eradicated, then such things will become more and more common."
Popular current affairs commentator Du Chifu said on his microblog account that the laws of a country tend to serve the interests of those who make them.
"The Sex Crimes Against Girls Law was the brainchild of Huang Songyou, former deputy head of the Supreme People's Court," Du wrote.
"Huang Songyou, as a number two in charge of the judiciary, is the highest-level official ever to lose his job for suspected corruption."
Shanghai-based lawyer Li Honghua said the law had been brought in to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.
"This should be a draconian law with even heavier penalties, but the way they have drafted it means sentences won't be severe," Li said.
"The people most likely to commit sex crimes with girls are the leadership at every level, so this law is fairly lenient," he said.
Last November, more than 95 percent of netizens who responded to an online poll supported making "child abuse" a specific offense under Chinese criminal law.
The International Union for Child Welfare in 1981 defined "child abuse" as consisting of "neglect or abuse" of children by family members and institutions, or of exploitation outside the home in the form of child labor or prostitution.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.